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Steve Puglia, Digital Preservation Pioneer

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Steven Puglia (Photo by Barry Wheeler)
Steven Puglia (Photo by Barry Wheeler)

Steven Puglia, manager of Digital Conversion Services at the Library of Congress, died peacefully on December 10, 2013 after a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer. Puglia had a profound effect on his colleagues here in Washington and worldwide, and there is a great outpouring of grief and appreciation in the wake of his passing.

The testimony embedded in this tribute demonstrates that Steve’s passing left the cultural heritage, conservation and preservation communities stunned, somber and affectionate. Their words attest to his character, his influence and the significance of his work. He was a rare combination of subject-matter expert and gifted, masterful teacher, who captivated and inspired audiences.

“Generous” is a word colleagues consistently use to describe Puglia – generous with his time, energy, advice and expertise. He was a pleasure to be around, the kind of colleague you want in the trenches with you – compassionate, kind and brilliant, with a wry sense of humor.

Steve enjoyed sharing his knowledge and helping others understand. From International Standards groups to workshops, from guidelines to desk-side help for colleagues, Steve sought out opportunities to teach. During discussions of how detailed to get in the Guidelines, Steve would often remind us that digitization is, by its nature, a technical endeavor…He worked even harder to make it palatable for those who simply hadn’t gotten it yet. — Jeff Reed, National Archives and Records Administration and co-author with Steve Puglia and Erin Rhodes of the 2004 Technical Guidelines for Digitizing Cultural Heritage Materials: Creation of Raster Image Master Files

Photography defined Puglia’s life — both the act of photography and the preservation and access of photographs. It was at the root of his work even as his professional life grew and branched in archival, preservationist and technological directions.

He earned a BFA in Photography from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1984 and worked at the Northeast Document Conservation Center duplicating historic negatives. In 1988, Puglia earned an MFA in Photography from the University of Delaware and went to work for the National Archives and Records Administration’s reformatting labs as a preservation and imaging specialist.

At NARA, Puglia worked with microfilm, storage of photographs and establishing standards for negative duplication. With the advent of the digital age, Puglia set up NARA’s first digital imaging department and researched the impact of digital technology on the long-term preservation of scanned images. He was instrumental in developing new methods of digital image preservation and helping to set imaging standards.

I feel very fortunate and thankful that I had the opportunity to work alongside Steve and to learn so much from him; Steve was a smart, inquisitive, kind, generous colleague, but even more so, he was an amazing teacher. He was generous in sharing his vast knowledge of digitization as well as traditional photographic processes and concepts – and the intersection of the two – in the work that we were doing at NARA.

I think writing the Guidelines was a labor of love for all of us, but especially for Steve. We collectively worried about how they would be perceived, how they would be useful, and about all the small details of the document. I remember especially struggling and working on the Image Parameter tables for different document types, all of us knowing these would probably be the most consulted part of the Guidelines. The fact that these tables are still relevant and stand strong today is a testament to Steve’s knowledge and contributions to the field. I feel lucky that I had a chance to learn from Steve; he was my first real mentor. We should all feel lucky to benefit from his knowledge. He will be missed. — Erin Rhodes, Colby College and co-author with Steve Puglia and Jeff Reed of the 2004 Technical Guidelines for Digitizing Cultural Heritage Materials: Creation of Raster Image Master Files

In 2011, Puglia joined the Library of Congress as manager of Digital Conversion Services where he oversaw the research and development of digital imaging approaches, data management, development of tools and other technical support in the Digital Imaging Lab.

It was not his first time working with the Library. In 1991 and 1992 he collaborated with the Preservation Directorate and over the past several years he had been a major contributor to the Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative. He became chair of the FADGI Still Image Working Group; in August 2011, he posted an update about the Still Image Working Group on The Signal.

Steve was a driving force in creating guidelines to help steer cultural heritage institutions towards standardized methods for digitizing their treasures. While at NARA, he was the primary author of the Technical Guidelines for Digitizing Cultural Heritage Materials: Creation of Raster Image Master Files, the 2004 document that continues to serve as a teaching tool and reference for all those involved in digital imaging. In 2007, Steve extended his efforts to form the FADGI Still Images Working Group and participated as a key technical member, providing invaluable input on practically every aspect of imaging technique and workflow.

I chaired the group from its start through 2010, and I could not have accomplished half of what I did without Steve. When I was at a loss as to how to best proceed, Steve provided the guidance I needed. He was one of the most genuine and honorable individuals I have known. Steve was selfless in giving his time to anyone who needed assistance or advice, and he will be missed by those who knew him. His passing is a tremendous loss to the cultural heritage imaging community. — Michael Stelmach, former Digital Conversion manager at the Library and past FADGI coordinator.

In reading Puglia’s June, 2011, Signal blog post about the JPEG 2000 Summit, you get a sense of his excitement for his work and a taste of how well he can communicate a complex subject in simple language.

This aspect of Puglia’s character comes up repeatedly: his drive to make his work clearly understood by anyone and everyone. In Sue Manus’s blog post introducing Puglia to readers of The Signal, she writes, “He says the next steps include working to make the technical concepts behind these tools better understood by less technical audiences, along with further development of the tools so they are easier to work with and more suited to process monitoring and quality management.” And “From an educational perspective, he says it’s important to take what is learned about best practices and present the concepts and information in ways that help people understand better how to use available technology.”

Colleagues declare that Puglia was a key figure in setting standards and guidelines. They report that he led the digital-preservation profession forward and he made critical contributions to the cultural heritage community. They praise his foresight and his broad comprehension of technology, archives, library science, digital imaging and digital preservation, all tempered by his practicality. And they all agree that the impact of his work will resonate for a long time.

Sometimes the best discussions–the ones you really learn from–are conversations in which the participants express different ideas and then sort them out. It’s like the college dorm debates that can make the lounge more instructive than a classroom. Over the years, I learned from Steve in exchanges leavened with friendly contrariety. For example, in 2003, we were both on the program at the NARA preservation conference. I was helping plan the new Library of Congress audiovisual facility to be built in Culpeper, Virginia, and my talk firmly pressed the idea that the time had come for the digital reformatting of audio and video, time to set aside analog approaches. Steve’s presentation was about the field in a more general way and it was much more cautious, rich with reminders about the uncertainties and high costs that surrounded digital technologies, as they were revealed to us more than a decade ago.

In the years that followed, our small tug of war continued and I saw that Steve’s skepticism represented the conservatism that any preservation specialist ought to employ. I came to think of him as a digital Descartes, applying the great philosopher’s seventeenth century method of doubt to twenty-first century issues. And like Descartes, Steve mustered the best and newest parts of science (here: imaging science) to build a coherent and comprehensive digital practice.

He may have been a slightly reluctant digital preservation pioneer but without doubt he was a tremendous contributor whose passing is a great loss to friends and colleagues. — Carl Fleischhauer, Library of Congress digital format specialist and FADGI coordinator

Puglia’s ashes will be scattered in New Hampshire along a woodland brook that he loved. A fitting end for a photographer.

Great Brook on Flickr by mwms1916
Great Brook on Flickr by mwms1916

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Comments (3)

  1. Thank you; are such small words to express my heartfelt gratitude for your caring about our shared culture so profoundly. Your inspiration, and work will live on and on …

  2. I’m very sorry to hear this. My condolences to his LoC colleagues and all those whose lives and work he touched.

  3. I am so sorry to hear this news, but great to read about the huge impact Steve Puglia has had on our field. I still refer people to his 1999 article on the Costs of Digital Imaging Projects. Some of the numbers and technical details may be obsolete, but his message about contemplating all the costs related to digitization, including some that can be hidden, is still vital.

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